Just after Christmas 1979, 100,000 soldiers of the Russian army occupied Afghanistan. Five and a half years later the Afghans are still putting up an unquellable resistance.
Russia holds only the towns; even its hold on the towns is insecure. Over large areas of the country the writ of Russia’s puppet government does not run. The invaders are forced to move around in convoys which are frequently ambushed, reportedly with heavy losses. Even the Russian “embassy” in Kabul is not safe from rocket attacks. Kabul, the capital city, with a population of one million, is reportedly surrounded by three defensive rings. Yet there are bomb and rocket attacks almost every night in Kabul.
For example on October 25 last year  there was a heavy rocket attack on government buildings in the centre of Kabul, and a rocket went off in the building holding the office of the prime minister. On October 26 the KGB building in Kabul was hit by a rocket. The Khad (Afghan secret police) building has been bombed. In October-November 1984 the USSR lost control of Kandahar, one of the biggest towns, with a population of 100,000. The “Red” Army retook it by surrounding and bombing it. It burned the crops in the surrounding area. Early last November the Muslim rebels captured 100 USSR soldiers and killed 30 more near Kandahar. The result was a wave of air attacks on the area between November 14 and 22. Some reports said that three Russian MIGs were brought down. The Afghan army, 80,000-strong at the time of the invasion, has melted to half its size. It is a matter of the Russians being pitted directly against most of the people of Afghanistan.
The USSR has something like 120,000 soldiers in Afghanistan now. Various expert Western commentators have calculated that four or five times that number would be necessary to subjugate Afghanistan. Having occupied, Russia has so far not committed enough resources to “pacify” the country. The result five and a half years after the occupation is that Russia has an occupier’s presence and little more. The “Red” Army is an army of occupation in a hostile land. Its relationship with the hostile people is what the relationship of all such armies is with those whose country they have invaded. They carry out reprisals and atrocities. When the Russians are attacked, nearby villages are shelled or napalmed in reprisal. Crops are burned from the air, in reprisal and as policy to deprive rebels and their supporters of food. Refugees were estimated by the UN in 1982 to number 2.6 million in Pakistan and 1.3 million in Iran. The economy has been wrecked. The area under crops is down. Rebel sources say it is down by two thirds.
But the signs are that the USSR has every intention of staying in Afghanistan. The economy of northern Afghanistan, where there are valuable minerals, is being systematically integrated with the economy of the USSR. At least 70% of Afghan trade is with Comecon. There is little reason to doubt that the anti-Russian forces are almost entirely reactionary, conservative and backward-looking.
They have allies and supporters ranging from the Chinese to the USA. Whatever about Russia’s intentions the Afghans are a long way from being defeated. They have never been conquered in modern times, and today they believe they are fighting a religious war. For Russia to complete the conquest would very likely require the commitment of some hundreds of thousands of fighting soldiers and also that a large part of the civilian population be either massacred or rounded up and herded into what have variously been called “strategic hamlets”, “resettlement areas” or “concentration camps”.
That is what the US did to hostile civilians in Vietnam, and what Britain did at the turn of the century to the women and children of the Boer guerrillas in South Africa. Plainly what is happening in Afghanistan is a war of colonial conquest. Those who gloated in the capitalist press in January 1980 that this would be “Russia’s Vietnam” have been proved right. What attitude should socialists take to the war?
It is a colonial war of conquest. But it is being fought by the USSR, which most of the left in Britain consider either socialist, or at any rate a workers’ state of some sort. (Most Socialist Organiser supporters would define it as a degenerated workers’ state). [That was true in 1985. In 1988 we officially changed our view, towards seeing the USSR as an exploitative class system not superior to capitalism]. So should our attitude be different from the attitude we took to the Vietnam war? Is the USSR’s war “progressive”? Even if we do not like what the Russians are doing, and would not have supported the invasion, does it necessarily follow that socialists should demand that the Russians get out — thereby vacating the field for the Muslim forces?
These are important questions. Today the major supposedly Marxist tendency which supports the war is Militant. But at the beginning of 1980 most would-be Trotskyists in the world supported the Russians, or at least would not call for withdrawal. Some of them were bowled over by the invasion. The American Socialist Workers’ Party — once the party of James P Cannon, who died in 1974 — hailed the invasion as a wonderful new development. It was the USSR “going to the aid of a revolution”. Cause indeed for wonderment!
In Britain, Socialist Challenge, forerunner of Socialist Action, first came out firmly against the Russians and then flipped over to support them. Within six months or a year they had sobered up. It was one of the most bizarre episodes in recent “Trotskyist” history, which unfortunately is not short of bizarre episodes. Today, only Militant, the posturing International Spartacist Tendency, and one or two no-hopers here and there maintain the pro-Russian position. Nevertheless the issues raised by the invasion remain extremely important.
It is a duty of serious socialists in the British labour movement to agitate for the movement to oppose the Russian colonial war and to demand that Russian troops leave Afghanistan. Militant is important for two reasons. It has a sizeable following in the British labour movement; and its ideas on Stalinism — from which its support for Russia’s “Vietnam war” flows — go right to the heart of what it is as a political tendency. These ideas need to be discussed, especially by the youth. The material in the first part of the pamphlet, on Afghanistan in 1973-9, is a slightly expanded version of two articles which appeared in the paper Workers’ Action in January 1980.
The section on Militant and Afghanistan is based on an article which appeared in Workers’ Action magazine, December 1980. It has been expanded quite a bit. The summary and conclusion is also based on that article. The rest is new.